Санкт-Петербург, Piter, Saint Petersburg, Leningrado?
Russia had remained in my heart, and in memory.
August 2004 marked my first trip to the Great Mother. Maybe this permanence was due to those eyes, as sharp as the Steppe wind, of those policemen stopping you, requesting to check my visa. Or was it due to those characters, twisted like hooks, which had become my perverse personal challenge, between me and the Cyrillic alphabet? Or again, those other eyes, sunk within dreams of sticky drugs, of the thousands of children who live under ground, in the Moscovite subway. Tired symbols of decay and cultural abrasion. I would have gladly avoided the via crucis of visas. If you want to enter Russia, and you happen to be European, you will have to answer a few tricky questions: who are you (not an easy one), what do you do for a living (it gets tougher, doesn’t it?), your age (legally or mentally?). What kind of car do you drive? How old were you when you kissed your first boyfriend? When did you pay your last visit to the toilet, and why?
A special medical assistance is required too. “If they chop you up, this will cover up the expense to vacuum pack you” told me a very honest friend of mine. “Hi, what can I do for you today?”. “I’d like to have 2 oz of Vanessa”. It’s lovely to see how your friends never underestimate your holiday destinations.
Late Autumn 2010, Russia here I come again.
Departure city of my Transmongolian trip of a lifetime: Saint Petersburg, Санкт-Петербург, Petergrad, Leningrad, or simply Piter? After leaving the Hibernian capital city, and via a sleepy 1-hour-stop in Riga, I landed there around the first hours of a beautiful 4th of September and one of the most vivid memories of my 2004 trip was the Russian border: the arrival hall was boundless, with peoples from everywhere, from Armenia to Turkmenistan to Moldova. In 2010, only a small office: on the other side of the dividing glass, a minute but disarming policewoman, cyclamen-red-lipped, with a scarily big stamp. She pushed it down with unprecedented strength onto my passport, before saying “Welcome back”, in English which is a bit sad, as I find it electrifying not to understand what I am told.
Stamps on my passport are the most precious joys of my life. They symbolize how hard it was sometimes to get somewhere, to see that life over there, beyond the borders, beyond our daily certainties which ramble down when you knock on an unknown door.
Pulkovo Airport. 17 kilometres away from the city centre, and I get there by marshutky hat are not special pills for motion sickness, but are instead ramshackle buses. My driver looks a bit like a madman, puffing away, one cigarette after the other. There are so many religious icons hanging on his windows that a question naturally pops up: “how can he see where he is going?”. Nevertheless, he smiles at me, when I give him the small amount due and I thanked him with “Спасибо большое”: a smile can make a difference, and will probably help to cross those borders.
My accommodation in Saint Petersburg is Cuba Hostel (www.cubahostel.ru).
Terror seizes me for an instant in front of the main door. That little voice inside my head whispers “Why didn’t you go back to London?”. I know the address is correct, Kazanskaya Ulyza, no 5. I am standing in front of an entrance hall which looks like a war zone: broken bottles, busted bricks are scattered around me, but the same voice inside my head keeps whispering that appearance don’t always match reality: if it gets rough, you might then run, but always give things a chance. Consequently I start walking up the stairs, and behind a Soviet-red door I find one of the best and funkiest hostels I have ever stayed at. After paying for my bed, and throwing the necessary stuff into my bag (my Nikon D3000, tissues, water), and after nearly stapling my travelling documents onto my hip, the first charming part of my trip starts: Piter awaits, and hopefully this glorious city has not changed too much since 2004.
Piter is like a clean magical trick, carried out without wavering. The city is divided up into two parts, at night time, when all bridges open up and let wobbling boats come in. If you happen to be on the wrong side of the River Neva, after midnight, your only solution to track back your way home is the morning sunshine. Piter is the Hermitage, where Matisse, Caravaggio, Picasso, Kandinskij reach for art lovers between the Winter Palace and the other sections of one of the biggest art museums of the world. Piter is also the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood: in front of this iridescent building, one of the many tzars’ life ended around the end of the 19th century as a result of one of the many nameless anarchists’ extreme gestures. It’s funny how kings’ and queens’ names stay in our history books, even though they all sound the same: Alexander The First, Peter The Third, Elizabeth the Second. Their names stay on even when their actions and decisions have been horrendous, or dehumanizing. Details of social impatience acts often remain nameless, and I guess that is a pity. Let’s take this example: some few meters from the church, a first grenade kills Tzar Alexander the Second’s double. What was his name? Was this lookalike happy to play the tzar’s stunts? Did he happen to like chess? We will never know, and that’s a bit of a loss. At this stage, Alexander vision is blurred, but he gets off the coach to approach the second mad anarchist. What did they tell each other, a fraction of time before the curtain went down? It’s you. Yes, it’s me. It’s time. It’s a pity. I guess I can’t stay, can I? Piter is also Tichvin Graveyard, where Dostoevskij and Tchaikovsky are dreaming for eternity, and Piter is also the Mariinskij Theatre, where Nureyev and Baryshnikov draw the light with their weightless steps.
It’s already time to leave.
Coach number 3, bed number 17, departure time: 11.55pm. Krasnya Strela.
Me and 3 incredibly tall Russian businessmen, which makes it sound saucy. Extremely shining shoes, laptops, Rolex as big as onions, and colourful ties. I look like a complete and utter idiot. I stare at my bed. And then again at the 3 men. I sit down. I stand up. I smile like a 12-hormonal year old girl. And then stare again at them. I wait for a sign, wagging my tail like a dog. How on Earth do you open this bed??!??!?! A sign comes, from above like an enigmatic archangel when my hero, Dimitri Serghejevich Sokolòv understands my slowness and shows me how to open beds on that train. He smiles, broadly, when I say “Спасибо большое”. Smiling confuses people, but helps you to bring down the walls, sometimes. The train leaves.
750 kilometres further south east, 8 hours.